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Wednesday, July 11, 2007 | On a recent weekday afternoon, Crown Point Elementary School in Pacific Beach looked like a school campus should on a sunny summer day: deserted, not a kid in sight.

The problem for Crown Point is that the school won’t look all that much different when it reopens in the fall. With a projected enrollment of just 110 students, or less than half of its capacity, Crown Point will be, by far, the smallest school in the San Diego Unified School District.

When San Diego Unified again opens its doors to students in late August, the district will have a total of 19 schools — nearly one in 10 — with fewer than 300 students, even as it ushers in several new campuses built with Proposition MM bond money. District accountants estimate that keeping the 19 campuses open — paying the salaries of principals and custodians and the price tag of keeping the lights on — will cost between $8 million and $10 million. Yet, as the school system struggles to cut costs and balance its budget in the face of declining student enrollment, no one seems to be able to agree on what to do with the small campuses.

The district committee tasked with reviewing school enrollment has met only once in the past six months, and its chairman said it has never looked at the issue. School board members have opposed closing the schools for fear of the political backlash it would most certainly engender from angry parents. And the superintendent has avoided talking about the future of the campuses, partly out of fear of creating an opening for charter schools, some board members said. So, when the new academic year comes around, the 19 schools will again fill with students — but not all the way.

In 2004, the school board approved plans drafted by then-Superintendent Alan Bersin to close Crown Point and three other campuses due to inadequate enrollment. But an election later that year ushered in a new board majority intent on changing the direction of the state’s second-largest school system. In one of its first votes, the new board reversed the closure plans in favor of taking more time to study the issue; a few months later, it ousted Bersin.

By June 2005, staff at San Diego Unified was again recommending that the district consider closure, this time of four campuses: Crown Point; Barnard Elementary in Point Loma; Cadman Elementary in Clairemont; and North Park Elementary in North Park. Again, the school board balked, directing the staff to study redrawing school boundaries and look at ways for increasing attendance at the troubled campuses.

The issue was supposed to return to the board in late summer of 2005 and again in November of that year. But it never did, and enrollment at three of the four schools has shrunk even further since then.

Since 2005, board members say they’ve been waiting for Superintendent Carl Cohn, who replaced Bersin, to propose a plan for what to do with the small schools. District staff members say they’ve been waiting for the board to provide clear direction for what to do after shooting down the closure proposals.

“I think that during the transition of the superintendentencies, it might have gotten placed on a different burner,” said school board member Shelia Jackson. “I think that’s what happens when you’re transitioning the district of our size, and there are so many things going on — I think things get placed in a different area” of priority.

The Smallest Schools

Projected enrollment for the fall at San Diego schools with the fewest students

1. Crown Point Elementary — 110 students

2. Barnard Elementary — 155 students

3. North Park Elementary — 165 students

4. Rolando Park Elementary — 207 students

5. Cabrillo Elementary — 211 students

6. Bayview Terrace Elementary — 241 students

7. Perkins Elementary — 241 students

8. Ocean Beach Elementary — 250 students

9. Fletcher Elementary — 256 students

10. Cubberley Elementary — 260 students

11. Cadman Elementary — 262 students

12. Washington Elementary — 271 students

13. Juarez Elementary — 279 students

14. Toler Elementary — 280 students

15. Rowan Elementary — 282 students

16. Pacific Beach Elementary — 286 students

17. Alcott Elementary — 288 students

18. Florence Elementary — 290 students

19. Birney Elementary — 291 students

In interviews, district officials said the future of the city’s smallest schools would likely re-emerge near the top of the agenda in the weeks ahead, as San Diego Unified struggles with student numbers that have fallen more than 15 percent short of projections made less than a decade ago.

“I know we’re going to be having a discussion about it over the next six months,” said board member Katherine Nakamura, the only remaining trustees who had voted for the school closures in 2004. “We’ll just have to.”

Yet, even as they agree that something must be done, trustees remain split on exactly what that something should be. Most still oppose closing the campuses for good.

“I could understand the sentiment of the neighborhood to closing a school that your children, your grandchildren, and your grand-grandchildren went [to]. It’s a very emotional issue for the neighborhood,” said board member Mitz Lee. “But I also understand the issue of realistic overhead expense when you have a school with very, very low enrollment.”

In 2005, district staff estimated that 40 percent of the tax dollars received by San Diego Unified for children at Crown Point and the other three campuses targeted for closure went to cover overhead expenses, compared to 15 percent for all elementary schools in the district. At the time, the district estimated that moving the students and the teachers to neighboring schools would carry a one-time price tag of $1.34 million, but would save $1.6 million every year.

Board member John de Beck, whose district includes nearly half of the small campuses, still opposes closures. Instead, he blames his colleagues for being unwilling to move ahead with boundary changes, which could shift attendance areas to move kids from the district’s larger campuses to its smaller ones. Such changes would likely anger many parents — who also vote.

“The reason why some schools are small is that the boards of education over the years have not been willing to change the boundaries to equalize the numbers,” he said. “Any of those sorts of things should be done.

“But board members shouldn’t argue that we got small schools when they haven’t been willing to face the political consequences of making the boundary changes.”

De Beck also worries that eliminating local campuses in the district’s poorest areas could hurt kids without means to travel further to another school. He concedes that keeping the small schools open costs more money than simply shuttering them and making the kids go elsewhere, but he said the communities — especially the neediest communities — deserve a neighborhood school.

“It’s sort of like having a 7-Eleven near a home,” he said. “It’s going to cost you more to buy your groceries there, but you go there anyway, because you can’t afford to go across town.”

Another factor driving Cohn’s decision to leave the campuses open since his arrival, board members say, is the threat of charter schools. Under a recent settlement to a lawsuit brought by the district’s charters, which are funded by tax dollars but operate largely independent of the district, the school system has promised to make it easier for charter schools to take over facilities currently not in use by the district at a nominal rent.

Cohn and Crown Point Principal Julia Carrillo did not return calls for comment.

If the district closed the small elementary schools, it could see a charter school move in and continue to enroll the same students. San Diego Unified would then lose out on the money it currently from the state, including a portion that goes to fund the district’s $212 million central office.

It would make little sense to close the campuses if the move does not result in savings for the taxpayers but simply shifts the money to charter schools, Lee argues.

Instead, Lee has proposed that the district reduce the administrative costs of operating the small schools by, for example, allowing a single principal to oversee multiple campuses.

It’s one of the alternatives she said she offered in 2005, when the district staff suggested closure.

“Then, after that, I have never heard of it again,” she said.

According to San Diego Unified policy, the district’s Advisory Committee for Utilization of Excess School Property is tasked with the “review of projected school enrollment and district facilities standards to determine the amount of surplus space and real property.” The body’s chairman, Jim Varnadore, said looking at enrollment is something the committee hasn’t done in his five years on the board.

“We don’t have the technical staff, we don’t have the kind of people to do that at all. It’s just an impossibility,” he said. “We’re not in the business of deciding or recommending whether this or that school should be closed. … We pay attention to what we think is our business, and try to do the job that the district asks us to do.”

Records on the school district’s website show that the committee has cancelled four of the five meetings it had scheduled since the beginning of 2007. At the most recent meeting, held last month, Varnadore said the only item of business on the agenda was scheduling meetings through the rest of the year.

Roy MacPhail, the school district’s new head of academic facilities, said he’s not sure of the outcome of the original school closure discussion in 2005.

“Three years ago, I must admit my memory is cloudy as to whether it was pulled, it was voted, or what,” he said.

Since then, MacPhail said the district staff has not looked at the idea because of the school board’s clear opposition.

But the district has tried to find ways to increase enrollment at the small campuses. Crown Point, for example, has introduced an advanced International Baccalaureate curriculum to try to appeal to parents, though future funding for the program remains uncertain. Other struggling schools have also developed specialty programs and become magnet campuses, allowing kids from throughout the district to attend.

In addition to the IB program, Crown Point is still “trying to think out of the box for how to market our school to the parents that live here,” said Delfino Alemán, the area superintendent whose district includes the school. Changing boundaries or closing the school hasn’t been ruled out either, he said.

“For the future, these are going to be discussions that are going to be held at the board level and the upper executive leadership level as well,” Alemán said. “We definitely don’t want to continue with a school that is only a third full.”

Please contact Vladimir Kogan directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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